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Excerpt 5 – An Echo in the Bone – “Sometimes They’re Really Dead” – Lord John Grey

Copyright 2009 Diana Gabaldon

Lord John lingered for a moment on the porch of the inn, watching his son vanish into the shadows under the elm  trees.  He had some qualms; the matter had been arranged with more haste than he would have liked–but he did have confidence in William’s abilities.  And while the arrangement clearly had its risks, that was the nature of a soldier’s life.  Some situations were riskier than others, though.

He hesitated, hearing the buzz of talk from the tap-room inside, but he had had enough of company for the night, and the thought of tossing to and fro under the low ceiling of his room, stifling in the day’s trapped heat, determined him to walk about until bodily exhaustion should insure sleep.

It wasn’t just the heat, he reflected, stepping off the porch and setting off in the opposite direction to the one Willie had taken.  He knew himself well enough to realize that even the apparent success of his plan would not prevent his lying awake, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, testing for weaknesses, seeking for ways of improvement.   After all, William would not depart immediately; there was a little time to consider, to make alterations, should that be necessary.

General Howe, for instance.  Had that been the best choice?  Perhaps Clinton…but no.  Henry Clinton was a fussy old woman, unwilling to stir a foot without orders in triplicate.

The Howe brothers–one a general, one an admiral–were famously uncouth, both having the manners, aspect, and general aroma of boars in rut.  Neither of them was stupid, though–God knew they weren’t timid–and Grey thought Willie fully capable of surviving rough manners and harsh words.  And a commander given to spitting on the floor–Richard Howe had once spat on Grey himself, though this was largely accidental, the wind having changed unexpectedly–was possibly easier for a young subaltern to deal with than the quirks of some other military gentlemen of Grey’s acquaintance.

Though even the most peculiar of the brotherhood of the blade was preferable to the diplomats.  He wondered idly what the term of venery might be for a collection of diplomats.  If writers formed the brotherhood of the quill, and a group of foxes be termed a skulk…a stab of diplomats, perhaps?  Brothers of the stiletto?   No, he decided.  Much too direct.  An opiate of diplomats, more like.   Brotherhood of the boring.   Though the ones who were not boring could be dangerous, on occasion.

Sir George Germaine was one of the rarer sorts: boring and dangerous.

He walked up and down the streets of the town for some time, in hopes of exhausting himself before going back to his small, stuffy room.  The sky was low and sullen, with heat-lightning flickering among the clouds, and the atmosphere was damp as a bath-sponge.  He should have been in Albany by now–no less humid and bug-ridden, but somewhat cooler, and near the sweet dark forests of the Adirondacks.

Still, he didn’t regret his hasty journey to Wilmington.  Willie was sorted; that was the important thing.  And Willie’s sister, Brianna–he stopped dead for a moment, eyes closed, reliving the moment of transcendence and heartbreak he had experienced that afternoon, seeing the two of them together for what would be their only meeting, ever.  He’d scarcely been able to breathe, his eyes fixed on the two tall figures, those handsome, bold faces, so like–and both so like the man who had stood beside him, unmoving, but by contrast with Grey, taking in great tearing gulps of air, as though he feared he might never breathe again.           Grey rubbed idly at his left ring-finger, not yet accustomed to find it bare.   He and Jamie Fraser had done the best they could to safeguard those they loved, and despite his melancholy, he was comforted at the thought that they were united in that kinship of responsibility.

Would he ever meet Brianna Fraser MacKenzie again? he wondered.  She had said not–and seemed as saddened by that fact as he was.

“God bless you, child,” he murmured, shaking his head as he turned back toward the harbor.  He would miss her very much–but as with Willie, his relief that she would soon be out of Wilmington and out of danger overwhelmed his personal sense of loss.

He glanced involuntarily at the water as he came out onto the quay, and drew a deep sigh of relief at seeing the empty stake, aslant in the tide.  He hadn’t understood her reasons for doing what she’d done–but he’d known her father–and her brother, for that matter–far too long to mistake the stubborn conviction he’d seen in those cat-like blue eyes.  So he’d got her the small boat she’d asked for, and stood on the quay with his heart in his throat, ready to create a distraction if needed, as her husband had rowed her out toward the bound pirate.

He’d seen men die in great numbers, usually unwillingly, occasionally with resignation.  He’d never seen one go with such passionate gratitude in his eyes.   Grey had no more than a passing acquaintance with Roger MacKenzie, but suspected him to be a remarkable man, having not only survived marriage to that fabulous and dangerous creature, but actually having sired children upon her.

He shook his head and turned, heading back toward the inn.  He could safely wait another two weeks, he thought, before replying to Germaine’s letter–which he had deftly magicked out of the diplomatic pouch when he’d seen William’s name upon it.  By which time he could truthfully say that alas, by the time the letter had been received, Lord Ellesmere was somewhere in the wilderness between North Carolina and New York, and thus could not be informed that he was recalled to England, though he (Grey) was positive that Ellesmere would greatly regret the loss of his opportunity to join Sir George’s staff, when he learned of it–several months hence.   Too bad.

He began to whistle “Lillibuleero,” and strode back to the inn in good spirits.

He paused in the tap-room, and asked for a bottle of wine to be sent up–only to be informed by the bar-maid that “the gentleman” had already taken a bottle upstairs with him.

“And two glasses,” she added, dimpling at him.  “So I don’t s’pose he meant to drink it all himself.”

Grey felt something like a centipede skitter up his spine.

“I beg your pardon,” he said.  “Did you say that there is a gentleman in my room?”

“Yes, sir,” she assured him.  “He said as he’s an old friend of yours…now, he did tell me his name…” her brow furrowed for an instant, then cleared.  “Bow-shaw, he said, or summat of the kind.   Frenchy kind of name,” she clarified.  “And a Frenchy kind of gentleman, too.  Will you be wanting food at all, sir?”

“No, I thank you.”  He waved her off, and went up the stairs, thinking rapidly whether he had left anything in his room that he shouldn’t have.

A Frenchman, named Bow-shaw…Beauchamp.  The name flashed in his mind like the flicker of heat-lightning.  He stopped dead for an instant in the middle of the staircase, then resumed his climb, more slowly.

Surely not…but who else might it be?  When he had resigned his commission, ten years before, he had begun diplomatic life as a member of England’s Black Chamber–that shadowy organization of persons charged with the interception and decoding of official diplomatic mail–and much less official messages–that flowed between the governments of Europe.  Every one of those governments possessed its own Black Chamber, and it was not unusual for the inhabitants of one such chamber to be aware of their opposite numbers–never met, but known by their signatures, their initials, their unsigned marginal notes.

Beauchamp had been one of the most active French agents; Grey had run across his trail several times in the intervening years, even though his own days in the Black Chamber were well behind him.  If he knew Beauchamp by name, it was entirely reasonable that the man knew him as well–but their invisible association had been years ago.  They had never met in person, and for such a meeting to occur here–  He touched the secret pocket in his coat, and was reassured by the muffled crackle of paper.

He hesitated at the top of the stair, but there was no point in furtiveness; clearly, he was expected.  With a firm step, he walked down the hall and turned the white china knob of his door, the porcelain smooth and cool beneath his fingers.

A wave of heat engulfed him and he gasped for air, involuntarily.  Just as well, as it prevented his uttering the blasphemy that had sprung to his lips.

The gentleman occupying the room’s only chair was indeed “Frenchy”–his very well-cut suit set off by cascades of snowy lace at throat and cuff, his shoes buckled with a silver that matched the hair at his temples.

“Mr. Beauchamp,” Grey said, and slowly closed the door behind him.  His damp linen clung to him, and he could feel his pulse thumping in his own temples.  “I fear you take me at something of a disadvantage.”

Perseverance Wainwright smiled, very slightly.

“I’m glad to see you, John,” he said.

[end section]

Grey bit his tongue to forestall anything injudicious–which description covered just about anything he might say, he thought, with the exception of “Good evening.”

“Good evening,” he said.  He lifted an eyebrow in question. “Monsieur Beauchamp?”

“Oh, yes.”  Percy got his feet under him, making to rise, but Grey waved him back and turned to fetch a stool, hoping the seconds gained by the movement would allow him to regain his composure.  Finding that they didn’t, he took another moment to open the window, and stood for a couple of lungfuls of the thick, dank air, before turning back and taking his own seat.

“How did that happen?” he asked, affecting casualness.  “Beauchamp, I mean.  Or is it merely a nom de guerre?”

“Oh, no.”  Percy took up his lace-trimmed handkerchief and dabbed sweat delicately from his hairline–which was beginning to recede, Grey noted.  “I married one of the sisters of the Baron Amandine.  The family name is Beauchamp; I adopted it.  The relationship provided a certain entree’to political circles, from which–.” he shrugged charmingly and made a graceful gesture that encompassed his career in the black chamber–and doubtless elsewhere, Grey thought grimly.

“My congratulations on your marriage,” Grey said, not bothering to keep the irony out of his voice.  “Which one are you sleeping with, the baron, or his sister?”

Percy looked amused.

“Both, on occasion.”

“Together?”

The smile widened.  His teeth were still good, Grey saw, though somewhat stained by wine.

“Occasionally.  Though Cecile–my wife–really prefers the attentions of her cousin Lucianne, and I myself prefer the attentions of the sub-gardener.  Lovely man named Emil–he reminds me of you…in your younger years.  Slender, blond, muscular and brutal.”

To his dismay, Grey found that he wanted to laugh.

“It sounds extremely French,” he said dryly, instead.  “I’m sure it suits you.  What do you want?”

“More a matter of what you want, I think.”  Percy had not yet drunk any of the wine; he took up the bottle and poured carefully, red liquid purling dark against the glasses. “Or perhaps I should say–what England wants.”  He held out a glass to Grey, smiling.  “For one can hardly separate your interests from those of your country, can one?  In fact, I confess that you have always seemed to me to be England, John.”

Grey wished to forbid him the use of his Christian name, but to do so would merely emphasize the memory of their intimacy–which was, of course, what Percy intended.  He chose to ignore it, and took a sip of his wine, which was good.  He wondered whether he was paying for it–and if so, how.

“What England wants,” he repeated, skeptical.  “And what is your impression of what England wants?”

Percy took a swallow of the wine and held it in his mouth, evidently savoring it, before finally swallowing.

“Hardly a secret, my dear, is it?”

Grey sighed, and stared pointedly at him.

“You’ve seen this ‘Declaration of Independency’ issued by the so-called Continental Congress?”  Percy asked. He turned, and reaching into a leather bag he had slung over the back of the chair, withdrew a folded sheaf of papers, which he handed to Grey.

Grey had not in fact seen the document in question, though he’d certainly heard about it.  It had been printed only a week previous, in Philadelphia, yet copies had spread like wind-borne weeds through the colonies.  Raising a brow at Percy, he unfolded the paper and skimmed it rapidly.

“The King is a tyrant?” he said, half-laughing at the outrageousness of some of the document’s more extreme sentiments.  He folded the sheets back together and tossed them on the table.

“And if I am England, I suppose you are the embodiment of France, for the purposes of this conversation?”

“I represent certain interests there,” Percy replied blandly.  “And in Canada.”

That rang small alarm bells.  Grey had fought in Canada with Wolfe, and was well aware that while the French had lost much of their North American holdings in that war, they remained ferociously entrenched in the northern regions, from Quebec to the coast.  Close enough to cause trouble now?  He thought not–but wouldn’t put anything past the French.  Or Percy.

“England wants a quick end to this nonsense, plainly.”  A long, knob-jointed hand waved toward the paper.  “The Continental army–so-called–is a flimsy association of men with no experience and conflicting notions.  What if I were prepared to provide you with information that might be used to…separate one of Washington’s chief generals from his interests?”

“What if you were?” Grey replied, making no effort to conceal the skepticism in his voice.  “How would this benefit France–or your own interests, which I take leave to think are possibly not entirely identical.”

“I see that time has not softened your natural cynicism, John.  One of your less attractive traits–I don’t know whether I ever mentioned that to you.”

Grey widened his stare slightly, and Percy sighed.

“Land, then,” he said.  “The Northwest Territory.  We want it back.”

Grey uttered a short laugh.

“I daresay you do.”  The territory in question, a large tract northwest of the Ohio river valley, had been ceded to Great Britain from France at the end of the French and Indian War.  Britain had not occupied the territory, though, and had prevented the colonists’ expansion into it, owing to armed resistance from the natives, and the ongoing negotiation of treaties with them.  The colonists weren’t pleased about it, he understood.  Grey had encountered some of said natives himself, and was inclined to think the British government’s position both reasonable and honorable.

“French traders had extensive ties with the aboriginals in that area; you have none.”

“The fur-trading merchants being some of the…interests…you represent?”

Percy smiled openly at that.

“Not the major interests.  But some.”

Grey didn’t bother asking why Percy was approaching him–an ostensibly retired diplomat of no particular influence–in the matter.  Percy knew the power of Grey’s family and connexions from the days of their personal association–and “Monsieur Beauchamp” knew a great deal more about his present personal connexions from the nexus of information that fed the black chambers of Europe.  Grey could not act in the matter, of course.  But he was well-placed to bring the offer quietly to the attention of those who could.

He felt as though every hair on his body was standing on end like an insect’s antennae, alert for danger.

“We would require something more than the suggestion, of course,” he said, very cool.  “The name of the gentleman in question, for example.”

“Not mine to share, at the moment.  But once a negotiation in good faith is opened…”

Grey was already wondering to whom he should take this offer.  Not Sir George Germaine.  Lord North’s office?  That could wait, though.

“And your personal interests?” he asked, with an edge.  He knew Percy Wainwright well enough to know that there would be some aspect of the affair to Percy’s personal benefit.

“Ah, that.”  Percy sipped at his wine, then lowered the glass and gazed limpidly at Grey across it.  “Very simple, really.  I am commissioned to find a man.  Do you know a Scottish gentleman named James Fraser?”

Grey’s felt the stem of his glass crack.  He went on holding it, though, and sipped the wine carefully, thanking God, firstly, that he had never told Percy Jamie Fraser’s name, and secondly, that Fraser had left Wilmington that afternoon.

“No,” he said calmly.  “What do you want with this Mr. Fraser?”

Percy shrugged, and smiled.

“Only a question or two.”

Grey could feel blood seeping from his lacerated palm.  Holding the cracked glass carefully together, he drank the rest of his wine.  Percy was quiet, drinking with him.

“My condolences upon the loss of your wife,” Percy said quietly.  “I know that she–”

“You know nothing,” Grey said roughly.  He leaned over and set the broken glass on the table; the bowl rolled crazily, the lees of wine washing the glass.  “Not one thing.  About my wife, or about me.”

Percy lifted his shoulders in the faintest of Gallic shrugs. As you like, it said.  And yet his eyes–they were still beautiful, damn him, dark and soft–rested on Grey with what seemed a genuine sympathy.

Grey sighed.  Doubtless it was genuine.  Percy could not be trusted–not ever–but what he’d done had been done from weakness, not from malice, or even lack of feeling.

“What do you want?” he repeated.

“Your son–” Percy began, and Grey turned suddenly on him.  He gripped Percy’s shoulder, hard enough that the man gave a little gasp and stiffened.  Grey leaned down, looking into Wainwright’s–sorry, Beauchamp’s–face, so close that he felt the warmth of the man’s breath on his cheek, and smelt his cologne.  He was getting blood on Wainwright’s coat.

“The last time I saw you,” Grey said, very quietly. “I came within an inch of putting a bullet through your head.  Don’t give me cause to regret my restraint.”

He let go and stood up.

“Stay away from my son–stay away from me.  And if you will take a well-meant bit of advice–go back to France.  Quickly.”

Turning on his heel, he went out, shutting the door firmly behind him.  He was halfway down the street before he realized that he had left Percy in his own room.

“The devil with it,” he muttered, and stamped off to beg a billet for the night from Sergeant Cutter.  In the morning, he would make sure that the Fraser family and William were all safely out of Wilmington.

[end section]